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Crisis management in marketing and communications: How to navigate in turbulent waters

Crisis management in communication
Photo credit: Canva

A company's reputation is one of its most valuable assets, but it can be fragile. A reputational crisis can arise at any time, and how you manage it can make all the difference. Whether it's bad publicity, a scandal or an emergency situation, effective crisis management is essential to minimise damage and protect your company's image. In this article, we explore the fundamentals of crisis management in marketing and communications.

Understanding what a reputation crisis is

A reputational crisis can take many forms:

  • Internal scandals: problems with corporate culture, harassment or discrimination.

  • Product or service problems: Product recalls, major failures, or widespread customer dissatisfaction.

  • Bad publicity: Offensive advertising campaigns, misguided statements by managers, or communication errors.

  • Cyber attacks or data leaks: Theft of customer data, website hacks, or breaches of confidentiality.

Whatever the nature of the crisis, appropriate management is crucial to preserving customer confidence and the company's reputation.

The essential stages of crisis management

  1. Identification and assessment: As soon as you spot the signs of a potential crisis, it's essential to identify it quickly and assess its potential impact on your business. The earlier you react, the more likely it is that you will be able to contain the situation.

  2. Assemble a multi-disciplinary crisis management team, including representatives from the marketing, communications, legal and public relations departments. This team should be ready to act if necessary.

  3. Develop a communications plan: Create a detailed communications plan that defines the roles and responsibilities of each member of the crisis team. Make sure the message is consistent and aligned with the company's values.

  4. Rapid and transparent communication: Inform stakeholders, including customers, employees, shareholders and the media, as soon as possible. Be transparent about the situation, the measures taken and the next steps.

  5. Corrective action: Identify the actions needed to resolve the crisis. This may include product recalls, dismissals, disciplinary measures or internal audits.

  6. Monitoring and evaluation: Monitor the situation closely after the crisis has been resolved. Gather feedback, evaluate the effectiveness of your actions and make adjustments if necessary.

Example of crisis management

Johnson & Johson case, 1982

In 1982, the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, which manufactures Tylenol, one of the most popular painkillers in the United States, was faced with one of the most serious crises in corporate history. Seven people died in Chicago after ingesting cyanide-poisoned Tylenol capsules. They recalled all products from the market, cooperated with the authorities and quickly introduced sealed packaging to reinforce safety. This response enabled Tylenol to restore its reputation and regain consumer confidence.

Leon : In serious situations, ethics and safety must come first, even if it means temporary financial losses.

United Airlines case, 2017

Photos d'un avion american airlines
Photo credit: american airlines

In April 2017, United Airlines was at the centre of a media storm after a passenger was violently ejected from an overbooked flight. Shocking footage of the incident quickly made the rounds on social media and in the news. The company's initial response was criticised, but United Airlines was quick to respond. They issued a public apology, announced measures to prevent it happening again and compensated the affected passenger. This swift reaction and subsequent corrective action helped to mitigate the damage to their reputation.

Lesson : Transparency, sincere apologies and immediate action are essential when managing reputational crises.

Uber case, 2017

photo de l'application uber
Photo credit: marketing weeks

Uber, has been rocked by a series of allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination within the company. These allegations came to light following an incisive article published by a former Uber engineer, which exposed a toxic corporate culture and unacceptable behaviour within the company. Uber's response was to sack the employees involved, appoint new management and introduce training programmes for staff. Although it has been a long road to rehabilitating Uber's reputation, these actions have shown their commitment to change.

Lesson : Taking decisive action to correct internal problems is crucial when managing reputational crises.

H&M case, 2018

Photo du badbuzz H&M
Photo credit: fast&furious

It all started when H&M published an advertising photo on its website. The photo featured a young black boy wearing a sweatshirt bearing the words "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle". The public reaction was swift, and social networks were soon abuzz. Many people saw the photo as racist and offensive, as it seemed to perpetuate racist stereotypes linked to the history of black exploitation. The company removed the photo from its website and publicly apologised, acknowledging that the photo was inappropriate and deeply regretting the discomfort it had caused.

Lesson : Crisis management must be thoughtful, strategic and focused on restoring trust and reputation.

Balenciaga case, 2022

The advertising campaign in question featured children wearing accessories clearly inspired by BDSM (bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadomasochism). Critics accused Balenciaga of promoting paedophilia and showing a blatant lack of sensitivity to child safety issues. The brand withdrew the advertising campaign after only six days of public exposure. In a press release, it offered a sincere apology, acknowledging the major mistake of associating children with accessories of this type. It took full responsibility for this bad decision and assured that an internal investigation would be carried out to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Lesson : Transparency, sincere apologies and immediate action are essential when managing reputational crises.


Crisis management in marketing and communications is an essential skill for any business. By following the essential steps, acting quickly and remaining transparent, you can not only minimise the damage during a crisis, but also strengthen your customers' trust in the long term. Remember, the way you handle a crisis can define the future of your business.


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